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Temple of Chastity - CODEX LAS HUELGAS - Music from 13th Century Spain
Virgenes egregie; Salve sancta parens; Surrexit de tumulo; Rosa das Rosas; Castitatis thalamum; Benedicamus benigno voto; Catolicorum concio; Alpha bovi et leoni; Veni, redemptor gencium; Audi Pontus, audi tellus followed by improvisation; Salve regina glorie; Gaude, virgo plena Deo;
Vella e mininna; Confessorum agonia; Ex illustri nata prosapia; Parit preter morem; Castrum pudicie/Virgo viget melius; Como poden per sas culpas; O Maria, virgo regia/Organica cantica; Maria, virgo virginum
Mille Fleurs
Recorded at the church St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, September 2002. DDD
SIGNUM CD 043 [59.38]

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This is the debut disc of an all-female group ‘Mille Fleurs’. They consist Jennie Cassidy who, as well as having a versatile and distinctive voice, also plays the Sinfonye, a kind of hurdy-gurdy, Belinda Sykes, singer, shawm player and percussionist and Helen Garrison who has a light but luscious mezzo. They are each experienced and committed early music performers. It is such an excellent idea to bring them together, having cut their teeth, as it were, with almost every other group you can think of. This repertoire is ideal for them, as I shall explain.
The Codex Las Huelgas is a voluminous manuscript found at the Las Huelgas convent near Burgos in northern Spain. It was copied in the first years of the 13th Century. Many pieces are unique to it; others can be traced throughout Europe. I visited Las Huelgas in 1982. When I arrived the clerk of the works asked me if it reminded of an English church, it certainly did, also of northern French architecture in its austerity. He explained that it was founded by Queen Eleanor, sister of Richard the Lion Heart. I was also struck by the iron grille which separates the nave from the nun’s choir with two rows of ancient choir stalls. There is also a 13th Century gilt pulpit.
The international style of the early Gothic is reflected in the pan-European style of the music. As it was a Convent you might be right in thinking that this is music for women only but this may well not be the case. The manuscript in fact contains 45 monodic and 141 polyphonic compositions consisting of all of the forms of the period: organa, condicti, sequences and motets.
This recording was made in the insalubrious surroundings of Kentish Town, yet it captures the cavernous spaces of St.Silas’ church excellently. It really gives an impression of being in the vast arena that is Las Huelgas which is, after all, practically the size of Westminster Abbey.
Tessa Knighton to whom I would bow on any matter concerning Spanish early music queries, in her excellent accompanying essay, "were these pieces performed by the nuns themselves, or, as has been tentatively suggested by the male chaplains who led worship there, at least on major feast occasions when polyphony was required?" Two other recordings of this repertoire are available. Each hedges its bets by dividing the CD into some pieces for male voices alone and some for females only. Sequencia (on deutsche harmonia Mundi 05472 77238 2) is totally a capella, whereas Mille fleurs discreetly, and sometimes not so discreetly, use instruments. Also a capella is ‘Discantus’ directed by Brigitte Lesne (Opus 111 30-68). Theirs is the most beautiful of the three recordings as far as voice quality is concerned but perhaps it is a little dull, being entirely for the nine female voices only.
Comparing repeated pieces on these CDs is interesting, although I should say at this stage that I am glad to have all three discs as each is so markedly different in approach. Miraculously only a few pieces are doubled-up.
On Opus 111 the three-part conductus ‘Catolicorum cocio’ is performed of course by women’s voices only. Sequencia perform it with men only and Mille fleurs have Jan Walters play it as a harp solo. Each way is effective and successful and I must add that any one of them is quite in keeping. Jan Walters also plays alone one other item; appropriately a cantiga, (a monodic, strophic song). She also accompanies in items like the first piece, ‘Virgenes egregie’. But it seems that instruments were not allowed in the act of worship so how do we explain the anomaly. We have to assume that some of this music was for the liturgy but other pieces were not. The music may well have been played by lay-workers attached as servants, for example, to the convent, men or women. Music may have accompanied meal-times. Instead of text readings a religious song could have been inserted and harp accompaniment in those circumstances was desirable to enable stable tuning. The disc also includes a fascinating improvisation on ‘Audi punctus, audi tellus’. We have an opportunity to hear the original monody on the immediately preceding track.
Jenny Cassidy has a nasal, folksy voice which listeners with long memories will associate with the days of Musica Reservata and Janita Noorman. The disc starts with Cassidy using this precise voice on the first two tracks; oddly enough it hardly rears its head again. I question its use in sacred works like the three part ‘Salve sancta parens’ but I find it more acceptable in the cantigas like ‘Rosa das rosas’ accompanied magically with a sort of broken chord background on the harp.
I can’t say that I warm to the idea of a two-part ‘Castitatis thalamum’ with one part played on the harp and the other sung in unison by all three singers; granted that the effect is, in many ways, haunting.
Nevertheless since starting to review this disc I have played it a great deal. Highlights include the simple yet expressive way a little two-part piece like ‘Benedicamus benigno voto’ is done by Sykes and Garrison. The final item on the CD, the quite often recorded ‘Maria, virgo virginum’ (here accompanied by a drone) is quite the most delightful performance of the piece I have ever heard. And what a beautiful A-men to end the CD.
Just a little note to Signum. Please could the track number be put next to the appropriate section in the booklet. Why also is the text of ‘Confessorum agonia’ missing when the rest are there and so well presented. The recording is good and the CD is adorned with attractive photos of the convent cloisters.

Gary Higginson

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